Top Five 21st Century Musicals for Book GeeksDecember 23, 2014
From Phantom to Les Miserables to Wicked, most Broadway classics started their lives as books. Some, like Wicked, are vastly different from their source materials, while others take a more faithful approach. Since the practice of turning great books into greater musicals is by no means dying out, let’s take a look at a few more recent musicals that are perhaps less famous outside of music theatre communities.
1. Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is (was) an immersive dinner theatre experience staged in its very own tented theatre space. It adapts a very small, juicy sliver of “War and Peace” that deals with the seduction of Natasha by the rakeish, already-married Anatole, and the rippling effects of the affair throughout their entire social circle.
The music is an eccentric blend of Russian folk music and electrorock, and the entire score is lush, gritty and sexy as hell. There’s a rhythmic beat to the whole thing that pulses with sensuality and power, hinting always at the darker machinations behind everyone’s plotting and scheming. “Natasha and Anatole” is perhaps the sexiest, though Helene’s “Charming” is a definite contender. For pure beauty, though, Natasha’s “No One Else” is an achingly beautiful song of longing and intimacy that should stun with its rawness and power.
Natasha & Pierre very cleverly takes lines from ‘War and Peace’ and gives them to the characters they refer to, letting them narrate their own emotions, anxieties and sensations as they almost, but don’t quite ever break the fourth wall. The result is a show that moves fluidly between gentility and intimacy to great, grand spectacles of decadence and passion. It really is a show unlike any other, and though it’s since closed on the off-Broadway circuit, the soundtrack is available for purchase and is undoubtedly worth every penny.
Matilda is based on the Roald Dahl classic of a young girl genius who goes utterly unappreciated by her family of criminal morons. When she finally gets to go to school, she meets Miss Honey, a teacher who comes to love her, and the hilariously hulking principal Miss Trunchbull.
Matilda made its debut in London before coming over to Broadway, where it currently plays at the Schubert. It has a distinctly English sensibility, and the bouncy, joyful score is funny, catchy, and often touching. There are a number of earworms in the score, with perhaps the most infectious being Matilda’s own “Naughty”, where she declares her determination to change her own story through little pranks played on her thankless parents. For a more serious affair, “When I Grow Up” has a beautiful, wistful melody that moves elegantly between joyful fun and sombre introspection. It’s a nuanced song, with the children longing for adulthood and the adults revealing just how close that inner child—and all her fears, anxieties and joys—really is.
Matilda is an incredibly faithful musical, and any fan of the book will likely be a fan of the musical. Matilda herself is a loveable heroine, and her suffering reveals such inner strength, bolstered by her love of books and reading as coping mechanisms. There’s also something thrilling about the fact that all of the supernatural stunts are performed live on stage, rather than relying on movie magic or pure imagination. It’s a great musical for the whole family that should offer a little something for both adults and children.
3. Love’s Labour’s Lost
Musicals based on Shakespeare’s works are hardly rare, but Love’s Labour’s Lost is not exactly one of the bard’s most famous works. Thus, the fact that a musical emerged in New York for a brief time was a happy surprise to this theatre fan. The plot concerns four friends who swear off women in favor of scholarly pursuits, only to naturally find themselves all passionately in love with four women they meet at a party. The women, distrusting their quick love, decide to test their proclamations with some Shakespeare-brand shenanigans that include disguise and trickery.
Love’s Labour’s Lost takes a quirky modern approach to the play, preserving some of the original lines and merging them with modern colloquialisms and insights into heterosexual relationships. The show really plays up the camaraderie between the four guys, which helps the translation to a modern context work a lot better. It’s a playful show overall, one that breaks the fourth wall to comment on the shenanigans
At times it gets a little annoyingly glib, but the score filled with undeniable gems. “The Tuba Song” is practically perfect in its summative joy, and “Hey Boys” is catchy and wonderfully sassy. For something that stands completely on its own as a wonderful song, though, the clear standout is “Love’s A Gun”, which is a sharp song about the dangers of love with an extended metaphor of crime and violence.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a solid musical, if a bit fluffy at times. The songbook is definitely worth checking out for its many merits.
4. Jane Eyre
Based on the Charlotte Bronte classic of the same name, Jane Eyre never really found a huge audience, though it’s a solid musical in its own right. The story concerns the titular Jane as she moves from an unloving family home to a harsh school to a position as a governess at Thornton Hall. There, she meets and falls in love with her employer, Mr. Edward Rochester, who has more than a few dark secrets in his past. Throughout, Jane learns and practices independence and courage as she fights for her happiness on her own terms.
Jane Eyre’s score is stormy and sweeping, heavy with a desolate loneliness that occasionally breaks into moments of soaring hope and freedom. The effect is one that nicely captures the gothic tone of the novel, with roaring melodies that never quite shake the dark, threatening tone that undercuts them. In particular, “Sirens” is a booming number with competing counter-melodies where the characters evaluate their desires and potentially unrequited loves.
James Barbour’s voice is booming and powerful, and Marla Schaffel’s performance, while a bit mature for the 18-year-old Jane, is raw and vulnerable in all the right ways. Rounding out a strong cast is Elizabeth DeGrazia, who has some funny turns with “The Finer Things.” She manages to flesh out a relatively two dimensional character from the novel by giving her moments of doubt and humanity.
As an adaptation, it feels authentically Bronte, with a few modern day insights and moments of humour that fit nicely into the story. Despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing with all the “sight” imagery, it’s a strong little musical that deserves a listen.
5. The Little Mermaid
While admittedly it feels strange to be putting a Disney musical on a list designed to highlight less famous literary musicals, the fact remains that The Little Mermaid didn’t spend a lot of time on Broadway, and was hardly considered a success when it closed. Compared to The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, this one just never found its audience, and I still find people who are surprised to hear that it exists. The story, if it needs to be recounted, is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story of a young mermaid who sacrifices her voice for legs in order to win the human prince of her dreams.
Alan Menken, who wrote the music for the animated film, returns to his musical theatre roots to write new songs. Some feel arbitrary—for example, the squawking Skuttle has two songs—but most of them feel perfectly at home with the classics. “The World Above” is a particular standout, playing out as a precursor to “Part of That World” and making for a perfect introduction to Ariel. “If Only” is another gem, with a reprise and an eventual quartet that’s fluid and lovely. For something a bit lighter, “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” is another fun moment where a voiceless Ariel sings about her excitement to finally be in the human world. In terms of romantic ballads, too, “Her Voice” is lush and sweeping, giving Eric a bit of much-needed stage time to develop his sentimental side.
When staged, the actresses playing mermaids all roll around on wheels while their tails swish around on wires behind them, and it’s a neat effect. Urusla’s costume is a giant ballgown with tentacles slithering down the skirt, drenching her in a green-and-black colour scheme. The swimming scenes are complex and visually interesting, and the stunt work must be appreciated. Overall, it’s an engagingly visual show that deserves to be seen in addition to being listened to, if only to watch how they meet the challenges that come along with a story that’s 60 percent underwater.